Tracking desertification with satellites highlighted at UNCCD COP

24 October 2005
With a quarter of the Earth’s land surface
affected, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
regards desertification as a worldwide problem. Delegates from the
170-plus signatories to the Convention currently gathered in Nairobi
have been briefed by ESA representatives and national partners on how
satellites are being used to track desertification in Europe.
The Seventh Session of the Conference of
the Parties (COP 7) of the United Nations Convention to Combat
Desertification (UNCCD) began in Kenya’s capital on 17 October and is
due to conclude 28 October. The COP is the main decision making group
of the UNCCD, which meets regularly to further the Convention’s
The UNCCD was established in 1994, in the
wake of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which recognised
desertification as a major social and environmental problem.
Desertification does not so much refer to the spread of existing
deserts as the creation of new ones, through the reduction of
productivity of vulnerable dryland areas by soil deterioration and
erosion as well as the long-term loss of natural vegetation.
Such drylands cover 40% of the world’s
land surface, and are the habitat and source of livelihood for more
than one billion people. Of the 5200 million hectares of drylands used
for agriculture, more than 70% are classed as degraded. Asia, Latin
America and Africa are particularly under threat, but some 30 million
hectares of European territory bordering the Mediterranean are also
affected, potentially threatening the livelihoods of 16.5 million
ESA is backing a satellite-based information service called
DesertWatch, working with national partners of four of the European
countries most affected by desertification: the Greek, Italian,
Portuguese and Turkish National Representatives to the UNCCD.
desertification can be remedied or even reversed, provided information
is available on what areas are most at risk. Satellite images can
highlight relevant land use change along with increased surface
reflectivity, temperature, dryness and dustiness. Infrared sensors can
detect vegetation stress due to environmental shifts.
This satellite data is being combined with
in-situ information, processing tools, models and geo-information
systems (GIS) to create standardised and comparable geo-information
products that can also be used to satisfy UNCCD reporting requirements.
DesertWatch products include national and
sub-national risk maps plus severity/recovery maps, pressure indicators
and state indicators. The intention is to create a means of
authoritatively assessing and monitoring desertification and its trends
over time.
ESA is manning an exhibit throughout the
UNCCD COP, and in addition on Thursday 20 October the Agency co-hosted
a lunchtime briefing session on DesertWatch with its national partners.
At the meeting, the first results from the project were presented to
more than 30 delegates from different countries worldwide.
“DesertWatch is not a research project but
rather the development and demonstration of a handsome software package
responding to needs and requirements of our users to better monitor and
assess desertification and land degradation using Earth Observation
technology” explained Olivier Arino of ESA. “The intention is that once
the system has been successfully demonstrated it will be transferred to
users for continued operation.”
DesertWatch builds a long history of ESA
working with the secretariats of International Conventions and
developing services intended to meet their needs. While DesertWatch is
for the moment focused on what UNCCD classes as ‘Annex IV’ countries ?±
meaning the Northern Mediterranean ?± the potential exists for the same
approach to be utilised more widely in support of Convention
Part of ESA’s Data User Element, the 24?±month DesertWatch project began in
September 2004. Italy’s Advanced Computer Systems SpA is leading
DesertWatch on behalf of ESA. Additional contributors include Spain’s
National Research Council ?± Arid Zones Research Station (EEZA), Italy’s
Ente per le Nuove Tecnologie, L’Energia e l’Ambiente in Rome (ENEA) and
University of Sassari Desertification Research Group (NRD), the
Research Institute for Knowledge Systems in the Netherlands (RIKS) and
the Remote Sensing Department of the University of Trier in Germany.
(Credits ESA
Author: EARSC

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